Free Pass on Democratic Legends

Minutes before John Kerry marched into the Fleet Center to accept the Democratic nomination, CBS reporter Byron Pitts pulled out the intimate personal information: "Senator Kerry is a very superstitious man. Just before he steps into the hall, he will do what he has always done before a major moment in his life. He will make a Sign of the Cross, then kiss the St. Christopher's medallion his mother gave him as a child."

Aside from the confusion of religion and superstition, there is one obvious question for viewers: how does Pitts know this is true? Even if it is true, it's also true that no other reporter has passed this regimen along. A search of the massive Nexis database shows no mention of Kerry's St. Christopher medallion in the last two years, and there's no sign of it in the whole Nexis sample of the Boston Globe.

After the speech, CBS's Pitts resumed serving up the humanizing Kerry spin: "Earlier, as the family was preparing to leave John Kerry's home in Boston, I'm told he whispered to his sister, remember the words of our mother on her deathbed when she said, 'John,' knowing he would run for President some day, 'remember, John, integrity, that's what matters.' Tonight, John Kerry tried to show that integrity." Who can confirm that story? Who cares?

In their natural predisposition to build up Democratic legends, reporters have passed on a bucket of these unconfirmed anecdotes during presidential campaigns: Al Gore's deathbed story of his sister Nancy Gore Hunger inspiring his war on tobacco, Bill Clinton's story about breaking down doors to stop his stepfather from beating his mother at 14, and now John Kerry's tales of Vietnam heroism.

These stories are not easily confirmable, and they are not on videotape. But God help he who would challenge - even just question - these legends. That critic is immediately offered a journalistic necklacing: denounced, pilloried, mocked, and ultimately banished from the political conversation. The challenge, even just the question, is ignored.

The John Kerry candidacy was built on an audacious rewrite of history. The man who roundly condemned the war effort, accusing his fellow soldiers of unspeakable acts of barbarism, would run as a hero of that war, surrounded by his "Band of Brothers." How could any self-respecting journalist covering this charade remain silent? Amazingly, most have.

In May, a group called Swift Boat Veterans for Truth held a press conference at the National Press Club to express their opposition to Kerry's war stories and his presidential campaign. ABC and NBC ignored them. Guess which reporter arrived to besmirch them? None other than CBS reporter Byron Pitts, the man passing on whispered tales of Kerry family integrity.

Pitts claimed: "the press conference was set up by the same people who tried to discredit John McCain's reputation in Vietnam service when McCain faced George W. Bush for the Republican nomination in 2000." Unsurprisingly, that language echoed perfectly a Kerry press release from Campaign Manager Mary Beth Cahill: "This attack was organized by the same pro-Bush group that smeared John McCain in 2000."

Then Pitts connected the anti-Kerry veterans to a presumed nefarious "strategy" they had nothing to do with implementing: "It's the same strategy used to go after Georgia Senator Max Cleland, who lost three limbs in Vietnam." Bingo: another favorite Kerry Democrat attack line.

There's an obvious pattern here. Print the legend about the Democrat, and don't investigate. When the Democrat's critics try to object, denounce them in personal terms, and investigate them and their dastardly plots instead.

Now, many months after Kerry began touting his Vietnam adventures as proof of his qualifications for the White House, the Swift Boat vets have released a book, and have made an ad full of Kerry's Vietnam comrades suggesting his stories are false. Are they right? If these soldiers - and there are over 200 of them - are telling the truth, Kerry is a national disgrace who shouldn't be allowed a visitor's pass to the White House, never mind the presidency.

What's depressing here for the American people is that the "mainstream press" is so relentlessly partisan that they have so utterly failed to see it as their job to explore the full biography of a man who stands a very decent chance of becoming the next president.

Since 1999, this national press corps devoted weeks to unproven charges and shadowy assertions that George W. Bush was hiding things about his service in the Texas Air National Guard. This national press corps has treated every nasty Democratic soft-money group and Michael Moore in-kind contribution to the Kerry campaign as just a sign of great liberal vigor. The Kerry war stories were their test to see if they're reliable watchdogs, or if they're just another coordinated part of the Democratic campaign machine. The results are in.